Melvin Van Peebles is best known as a filmmaker, thanks to his 1971 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, often credited as the first blaxploitation movie but really more similar to the French avant-garde films of the time. But over a long and richly textured career, he’s also been a novelist, a playwright, a financial professional (in the ’80s he wrote a book on options trading), a visual artist, and the editor of the French-language edition of Mad magazine.
In one of the lesser-known phases of his life Van Peebles did graduate work in astronomy. “I was getting my Ph.D in Holland—I speak Dutch—for a number of years before I moved to France,” he says, “because I had one of those offers you couldn’t turn down. They offered me to come and do my films.” His studies were an outgrowth of some high-flying assignments during a Cold War stint in the Air Force. “I used to be the third person in the secret jets we had—they were secret at the time—a jet bomber that flew at immense heights carrying atomic bombs. We went on what they called ‘globetrotter’ missions, where we’d take off from a base in Southern California, fly up to usually Alaska, then refuel, fly down along the Bering Strait—the idea was that the groups of planes would always be in the air. As a navigator I started studying astronomy, because sometimes you’re not able to use the equipment, so you’d have to do it the old-fashioned way, figuring out what you were seeing in the sky.”
With the release of a new album-length collaboration with the British avant-jazz-funk group The Heliocentrics, Van Peebles returns to his love of astronomy and his fruitful side hustle as a recording artist. The Last Transmission pairs overdriven psychedelic instrumental arrangements with a meandering but engaging prose poem that follows a first-person protagonist on a journey through the stars that includes a hook-up with a methane-based life form.
As for The Heliocentrics’s musical contribution to the album, Van Peebles says, “They did a phenomenal job. It worked out terrifically.” As for the possibility of alien life hanging out somewhere in the cosmos? “We haven’t found them yet. It could be. It could be. We don’t know yet, but it could be.”